During his days at Wellford (S.C.) Byrnes High School, defensive lineman Corey Miller was good friends with a talented teammate named Marcus Lattimore. Even then Lattimore's greatness was clearly evident.
As Miller recalls: "We used to joke around about it in high school: 'Oh, man, you might be a Heisman dude.' It was real funny to us until it started getting talked about."
Lattimore's Heisman candidacy began "getting talked about" when he rushed for 1,197 yards as a South Carolina freshman last fall. He was on track for another spectacular season this fall until he suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago against Mississippi State. As a result, the prep teammates won't be facing one another at Neyland Stadium this weekend. Miller finds that a little frustrating.
"I keep up with him," the Vol sophomore said. "Whenever he plays I watch the highlights. He's been doing great. It's a disappointment he's hurt now."
Even with Lattimore sidelined, though, Miller is excited about battling his home-state university.
"It's kind of personal facing a home-state team because you know a lot of the guys," he said. "Other that that, it's just another game to come out and represent."
In addition to knowing "seven or eight" of South Carolina's players from high school, Miller knows several Gamecock coaches from the recruiting process ... one in particular.
"They came after me pretty hard," he recalled. "I was recruited by (defensive line coach) Brad Lawing. But this is where I needed to be. I bleed orange."
Tennessee's defensive line coach has noticed.
"Corey's a great young man, loves Tennessee, loves representing us," Lance Thompson said. "He's got a good attitude, tries to get better every day."
Miller's orange blood showed through when he unselfishly agreed to move from defensive end to defensive tackle last spring. At 6-3 and 265 pounds, he's awfully small to be playing tackle in the rugged SEC.
|Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson has been vital to Corey Miller's progress.|
"Number one, it is not easy. Number two, it takes a mindset," Thompson said. "Like Malik (Jackson) said a couple of weeks ago: 'You've got to play like you're a 400-pounder, not a 250-pounder.' There's some truth to that. You've got to be tough-minded. Corey's got good strength and he can play with good pad level. He's gotten a lot better with his hands."
Miller believes Thompson's tips have helped make the transition to tackle a lot smoother.
"Coach Thompson preaches all the time pad level, leverage, low man wins," Miller said. "That's what I try to keep my focus on because I am a little undersized on the inside. As long as I can stay lower than the offensive lineman I have a good chance to stay inside on the run."
Because Tennessee lacks defensive line depth, Miller is splitting time at tackle and end these days. His ability to play both positions is a real plus for the Vols.
"Corey's a little bit of a jack of all trades," Thompson said. "He's a smart player, which obviously helps him play any position. Obviously, he's a little undersized to play inside but he is a tough guy and he's strong. He's one of our guys who knows what it means to strain — drop his weight and press blocks, stuff like that."
Although he won't get to butt heads with good friend Lattimore Saturday night, Miller seems eager to challenge the Gamecocks.
"He's a little nicked up but it's an important game for him," Thompson said. "There's no question about it."